Develop, license, repeat

Government should make a business of distributing open-source software.

The debate about the government's development of open-source software goes something like this: Advocates say that if all government agencies would give away their in-house software for free, a voluntary army of programmers would send all bugs to oblivion and make stand-alone information systems disappear like wind-up watches. Utopia!

Skeptics say utopia always arrives tomorrow.

"The alternative is either we build stovepipes or we build [software] once and reuse it," said Andy Stein, information technology director of Newport News, Va. "A distributed and independent group of folks collaborating on developing software will develop better quality software," and the final, easily distributable product saves everyone money.

Government software written in open code yields a double advantage: Quality and quantity are nurtured by a cooperative environment beneficial

to all participants.

But cash-strapped counties may see things in a different light. Officials

in Jefferson County, Colo., for example, are renowned for quality software development. Their latest product is middleware that links citizen location information within various county

databases.

"We spent a lot of time and a lot of money building this thing," said David Gallaher, the county's IT development director. "If we can get back some of that investment, we would be foolish from the taxpayer's standpoint not to do it."

Stein admits open source isn't the only route to quality software. "Instinctively, I believe that it leads to a better quality software," but there's no proof, he said.

Gallaher said Jefferson County officials are looking closely at the open-code projects for signs of success. But as to whether to sell or give away the middleware, that's not his decision anyway.

"It's no longer going to be a technical issue, it's a political issue," and the county commissioners will consider options later this year,

he said.

About the Author

David Perera is a special contributor to Defense Systems.

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